What’s the point of a reshuffle?

Emma Burnell

When a reshuffle is in the air, everybody can sense it. Ministers and their shadows pop up on the television a lot more, make far more interventions. The press is full of endless speculations. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s up? Who’s down?

The one question that never, ever seems to be asked is why do we reshuffle at all?

A minister arrives at their department to be met with civil servants who have years of policy experience. They have a very short time to get on top of their new brief as there will be engagements at which they will be expected to speak to be attended very soon. There may be legislation to get on top of as well as numerous personalities to learn to understand, agencies to get on top of and chains of command to establish.

And as soon as you get on top of all that and start to become confident enough in the detail of your brief to start to build up well informed policies ready for you to champion, then it’s reshuffle time again and the whole damn rigmarole starts all over again.

There is not a business in the world that would run their senior management in such a slapdash and haphazard fashion. So why do we insist that the teams that ultimately run the country do so? We are trading moments of political drama and spectacle for the long term good of stable governance and policy making.

This is not to say that ministers or shadow ministers who are underperforming should not be moved. There is nothing more important to the ability to deliver when in government than the performance of its leaders. But this is not the same thing as a mass reorganisation where people are relocated almost for the sake of it.

Take the housing brief for example. During the 13 years of Labour Government, we had nine different housing ministers. Is it any wonder that we failed to build enough housing? In the three years of the Coalition we are now onto our second shadow minister for housing in the three years Ed Miliband has been leader of the opposition.

Jack Dromey MP spoke to 17 different fringe events on housing at the 2013 conference alone. Weeks later he had a completely new brief in the Home Office team. I’m sure Emma Reynolds will be an exceptional shadow housing minister – she was superb in the Europe Brief. But this constant moving of personal around such an important issue means that the ministers cannot deliver with the strength of conviction that both knowing your brief inside out offers, nor the surety that you are unlikely to be moved on within an 18 month timeframe if you are properly delivering.

Westminster thrives on political drama, and there is little more dramatic than a reshuffle. But it is far from the kind of good employment practice we would encourage anywhere else. These political stunts send an appalling message that people’s jobs should be at the caprice of a wilful employer with an agenda of their own.

Sometimes, the radical thing would not be to change the team, but to change the culture. If Labour wants to be truly radical, perhaps it is time to say “enough” and to end the practice of across-the-board reshuffles, leaving the necessity of personnel management as an ongoing, well-monitored task, rather than a headline grabbing performance piece.

At the very least, before asking who we should reshuffle next, we should first ask why we are doing it in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. Oliver Savory

    I totally agree that we should promote the idea of ministers becoming specialists, staying in their posts to see through their policies (this doesn’t just touch on reshuffles, when something goes wrong the kneejerk response is to call for the minister responsible to resign, not to sort out the mess they created).

    However I can see why “the reshuffle” is a useful tool for party leaders, not just in punishing poor performers and promoting good performers, but also in ensuring party discipline. One of the main tools in keeping backbench MPs toeing the line is the power of patronage, but for MPs to care about whether or not their party leader will think of promoting them they have to think there’s adequate opportunity to get promoted. If cabinet, and shadow cabinet, positions seem to be fixed then there’s less incentive to do what the party leaders tell you, as you’re unlikely to get a promotion anyway.

    Add in to this the fact that the whips have lost control of committee membership, thus taking away another of their ways of controlling MPs. You can see how Tory backbenchers have reacted to having to deal with the fact that there are fewer ministerial positions for them in a coalition government (increased rebelliousness).

    In a “normal” business there’s a natural career progression, with structured pay increases/responsibility upgrades to reward people throughout their career, however MPs don’t get that so on-going personnel management can be rather more difficult.

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